Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Is Seattle School District Too Big?

Pop Poll:

Should Seattle Schools be more than one district?

If so, should it be two, a north and south? 

Five, with a NE, NW, Central, SE and West Seattle?  

What would be the ramifications, good and bad?  (Many believe in the north-south divide in our district so I would expect it to be even more pronounced if there were a divide.)

Would a split mean districts more focused on regional issues and parent needs/wants? 

I note that in Tucson, AZ, there are multiple small (and I mean small districts) and friends tell me it is a challenge when considering where to live there.


mirmac1 said...

What! And have twice the inequity?! Twice the overhead?! There are a number of successful districts that number of $100K students! That would be insane!

Anonymous said...

Yes, 3 districts. Seattle, North Seattle (ship canal the boundary) and West Seattle.

Seattle is too big, there is too much signal-to-noise ratio in our district. By rightsizing to 3 districts, focus would be put back onto education and students. One might intuit that it would be a less efficient, however, our District's overhead has bloated to the point of ridiculousness. For example, suffer through bad math text books for 7 years for grades K-8, and now we can't just get good math materials becausr instead Heath and Tolley want an additional 2 years to study the problem and align to Common Core? Nonsense. And, that is the kind of nonsense that smaller districts avoid, because "the Emperor has no clothes" is spotted much faster and done away with much quicker. Three much smaller district would be forced to be absolutely lean, less time and fewer resources to waste, thus they are "forced" to operate with much more efficiency and focus, the smaller pot of money makes them prioritize and drives them to be more disciplined in their choices, with money focused on the kids. And best of all, it would be far less easy for the mayor to barge in and take over.

-yes 3

Anonymous said...

Not sure why it would be more "inequitable" to have more than 1 district. We already have neighborhood based assignment. We already have "equitable" funding, more or less, for schools. Meaning, the same basic funding is spent on each child. (Of course, the real inequity is that WAY more funding is needed for poor students than is spent. Does anybody really think that an extra $50 at the school level, will equalize the playing field for a student in poverty?) The overhead is truly an issue though. At some point, hiring millions of oversight director/managers for BEX etc, hiring 2 special ed directors (or 3 sometimes), etc, loses the supposed efficiency. There's no way to split it up though.


Anonymous said...

Yes, yes 3. Breaking into smaller districts would actually reduce the overhead and corruption by forcing more transparency. Not sure what configuration would be best, just know that this district is too big, too easy to get away with lots of nonsense, too easy to pad the bureaucracy. Things are so spread out in this district that downtown has no accountability to the schools it's supposed to serve.


Eric B said...

Some of the overhead issues go away with a smaller district. On one extreme end, in a district with five schools (three elementary, one middle, one high), you would have two layers of management--the principals and the superintendent. There would be a little central admin (testing, food, grounds, maintenance, HR, IT), but most of the work would be done at the school level. It's possible to do that if you can see all of the schools from your office. More to this point, if you split into North, Central, and West, you would be able to ditch at least one or two layers of management.

I think the question we have to ask is whether students at Viewlands, Whitman, and Ingraham have substantially different resources and challenges than students at West Seattle, Denny, and Sealth or Maple, Mercer, and Franklin. If those three groups of students need different approaches to teaching and school administration, then they may benefit from splitting the district.

On state and federal funding, there wouldn't be too much inequity in funding. There may be some from levies, although the poorest subdistrict (Central) would also benefit from the large property tax base downtown and in SLU. Inequity in parent volunteer hours would persist, but I don't see how you change that.

Patrick said...

While there might be some additional overhead, there also might be some savings by not needing the middle layer of management. There might be more accountability of the districts to their boards, and of the boards to the voters.

I'd worry about programs that need a minimum size to be cost-effective and that size is only possible with an all-city draw. But the District seems to be doing its best to shut those programs down anyway.

Charlie Mas said...

There are economies of scale that come with being a large district, and we need those. The size also allows us to re-balance funds among affluent and low-income communities within the city.

I don't see the upside. The tools for transparency are already in our hands: ballots. The same for putting the focus back on education or flatten the org chart.

If that were the case, then why not become six districts, or ten?

There are a lot of rural districts in Washington in which the superintendent is the high school principal. Are they better run than SPS? Are they getting better results? Are they more responsive to the community or to changes in education styles? Not that I can see.

Jon said...

Not sure what the point is of splitting into multiple districts? What is the goal?

Is the goal reducing central administration? If so, then the obvious question is why not just reduce central administration right now (cut their responsibilities, push them down to the principals, then cut the administration budget)?

Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,

I think the goal of splitting into smaller districts would be to have a more responsive, local, manageably sized entity; one which is more accessible to its constituency; one with recognizable faces and a shorter chain of command; one where expenses and personnel don't get lost quite so easily on a giant spreadsheet. I do think that on a smaller, local scale things are plainer to see.

I support your idea about cutting central administration in the abstract, but don't see that happening in the real world. (But then again, I don't see the district getting split into smaller sized districts happening in the real world either! Ah, inertia...)


robyn said...

Excellent idea! I could see the geographical breakdown, but I could also see a k-8 or k-5 as a district and then a middle and/or high school. Isn't this what Banda just came left? Let's do it! I don't agree that it's twice the overhead.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Just to be clear, I'm just asking. I have no idea what the general public thinks or how to do it or what Board directors (or perspective ones) think.

Anonymous said...

A chance to sucede from The Glass Palace and all of their shenanigans (adults first, kids second - standard operating procedure)? Hell YES! I don't care what geography I get lumped into- just free me from the coaches, the star mentors, the danieldson framework, the bad math, the science box, the non-existent language arts... FREEDOM!
-can't be worse

Anonymous said...

Jon, the point is focus. Where the needs/issues in the north end are centered on overcrowding and capacity, and the needs/issues in the south end are not about overcrowding, what we are left with is much bickering about whose needs are more important. Sadly, this extends even down to the school level where a principal from the south remarked that certain north end students don't deserve a new school. The reality is that both groups needs are important, just different. So, I think that there is a greater opportunity to focus on the specific needs if we were to split the district.

Charlie - you are talking about funds from property taxes re:rebalancing? As others have mentioned, the state funding is the same and also as mentioned there should be good tax income coming from Downtown, Capitol Hill, Madison Park, etc. for South End

In Favor of 2-3 districts

Anonymous said...

I wonder to what extent is this about frustration with distractions like racial politics in the district? Is the problem that the district spends too much time on equality and race and too little time on math? Is the solution to that really going to be splitting off the wealthier and whiter north? Or is there a better solution?


mirmac1 said...

Three separate o&M levies, anyone? Guaranteed passage? Frankly, I couldn't live with myself in a separate AND unequal society.

Melissa Westbrook said...

In Favor, what principal was that and what school was he/she referring to? If you don't want to tell us, please tell the Board and Superintendent. They NEED to hear this and shut it down.

Anonymous said...

I say we have three districts based solely on income.Under $40k, 40k -80k, and over 80k, Then there is not an issue of moving into the right neighborhood,just making enough money.


seattle citizen said...

mirmac's question is an important one: Three levies?
a) The poorer part of town might not be as willing to let go some of their scarcer funds by voting "yes";
b) since their property is less valuable, they would get less money from similar (percentage of property value) levies.
My rough estimate is that levies make up as much as 1/3 the cost of running a district. So if the less wealthy part of town either passes only half its levies or only gets half the money raised due to property value, they would only be getting 5/6 the per student dollars the wealthier district gets.

Unless....Two districts, with I-5 as the dividing line...No need to divide across the city, divide vertically. If you want three, add in Highway 99.

The argument for "different schools, different needs" strikes me as dangerously generalized. It's an argument I often make, but EVERY school has a variety of needs. To restructure an entire school (or district!) to meet the perceived need, generally, of a population might lead to, oh, I don't know, debased test-prep schools in one part of town, devoid of rich curricula (those students just need the basics, dontcha know! Generally....) and a deeper...better education in the wealthier districts.

Students all over Seattle have a variety of needs. Dividing the pedagogy and curricula into two separate methodologies because of assumptions about entire student bodies "in those parts of town" is NOT a good idea.

Eric B said...

Seattle citizen, All of the property in the area would be taxed. Seattle as a whole has a lower tax rate than most of the surrounding cities (except Mercer Island) because it has such a large commercial tax base. This would be magnified in central/south Seattle, where you have very large property values in the downtown area. For example, the Columbia tower alone is valued at a $277 million for tax purposes. That's the same as 500-1000 single family homes that might vote for a levy, but nobody in the tower can vote against.

I would suspect (but have no data) that the property tax rates to maintain similar levels of per-student funding might actually be lower in central/south than in north or west Seattle because of the large commercial tax base.

I see what you're saying about generalizing what kids need. However, I also hear a lot of "you're in ____, you don't understand what our challenges are in ____." You can just about put any two Seattle neighborhoods in those blanks! There's some truth to this, though. I know my part of town, but not other areas. While kids are kids all over, I'm sure there are different major themes in different areas. For example, basic safety getting to school is far less of an issue at Ballard than at Garfield. More local boards may respond to this more quickly and more effectively. None of this is to say that we can't as a single district in Seattle, just that smaller organizations may have an easier time.

As far as layers of management, there are limits to the number of people one manager can realistically oversee. The more employees you have, the more layers of management there are. For example, I work for a company of about 1500 people. We have an extremely flat management structure, but we still have 7-8 levels between the top and bottom.

Anonymous said...

I am intrigued by the idea, though I know it will draw the racism comments. But honestly, I think what we have now is just plain broken. So if we had north and south, each could maybe deal with their respective needs without torpedoing the other. The money/equity piece is the problem. Maybe still one levy? It's a tough one. Charlie, I don't think economies of scale are working - i think the opposite actually. Too much bloat and administration. Think smaller and leaner might work. Well, it's a pipe dream, but besides the political unpopularity, it really might be the best thing. Again - what we have isn't working, so I'm willing to look at radical suggestions.

Rare commenter

mirmac1 said...

Eric B,

Explain that please. So the entire city would be taxed? Did the voters decide? Would it not be by district (like water and sewer districts)? Last time I voted, I don't think I did the math to figure "well, I'll pay more, given that Boeing gets a pass so better vote yes!"

The bloat downtown is not a symptom of a (medium-sized) district; rather of ineffectual leadership by wimpy administrators. It's a sign of a superintendent who is trying to appease the moneyed interests by pouring money down every rathole. It's a bureaucracy that must grow just to sustain itself like The Blob (remember, one of Banda's evaluation criteria was "retaining key staff"). The rest of us just get to sit and spin.

seattle citizen said...

Rare commenter,
You wrote, " So if we had north and south..."

Why that split? Why didn't you suggest east and west?

seattle citizen said...

At Eric B - I, too, am confused: Are you suggesting separate districts that split one pot of levy money?
You might be right about the commercial properties contributing taxes in a "south district" (if that's the way the split worked....seems like it opens a can of worms.)
Come to think of it, how much of our regular old property taxes (besides levies) actually go into schools? Any?
Someone with better knowledge than I of taxation principles better weigh in. State funding COULD easily be divided. But city or levy monies? Hmm....

Anonymous said...

Whew, glad to read what people are really thinking. SPS spending too much time on race. Huh? Not enough on math? Whoa.... Care to give examples please? Love the comment about north end main issue is overcrowding, but south end issues are "not about overcrowding" (but doesn't say what the issues are, just leave readers to fill in the .....). By the way capacity issue affects all parts of this city, though some readers here may feel like it's really just them who are feeling it. Had to put on my waders to parse through some of these comments and the first question is: who are you really running from?

If these mini districts are run like the way PTAs and BLTs run some of these local schools, it'll be interesting indeed. Inefficiency and cronyism aren't going away. We call it working our connections the Seattle way all for the magnificent glorification of neighborhood schools.


Eric B said...


It would only be by district, so all of the property in the district would get taxed. For a hypothetical district from the Ship Canal to the south city limits, all of the downtown property would get taxed (as would Montlake, Queen Anne, etc.). The place it would come in to the voter's pamphlet is the tax $ per $1,000 of assessed value.

For the sake of argument, let's say that you have a district with 1000 homes valued at $200K and one skyscraper valued at $200M. Your total tax base is $400 million. If you want to raise a million in tax revenue each year, your tax per $1000 in valuation is 1/400. For each of the homes, this would be $500/year in taxes, while the skyscrapers pays $500,000. Without the skyscraper, the single family tax levy would be doubled. $500/year vs. $1000 per year would get very different levels of support from the single family homes.

Given the trouble we currently have over equity, I don't think that all of the subdistricts having the same levy would work.

Anonymous said...

I think it is funny that all of you are answering this question like it is real. Let's deal with our real issues and stop wasting time dreaming/arguing about such ridiculous things. Maybe we should consider Cathy Casey being in charge of food services so the food quality is better. funny.....you people that is.....

It this just a place to argue about anything and everything......

-Long Gone

Melissa Westbrook said...

Long Gone, this is an issue that comes up repeatedly and actually is a reality in cities around the country.

If people are considering pushing mayoral control of the district, wouldn't breaking up the district be on the table?

Maureen said...

I think this is ridiculous even as a hypothetical. SPS doesn't even have 50,000 kids. That is not large in comparison to other metropolitan districts (NYC > 1,000,000; Boston>57,000, Atlanta > 50,000, PORTLAND>47,000, Chicago >400,000!...). I think it's crazy to (1) duplicate upper administration, (2)throw a wall across our city at the ship canal (I-5 or or where ever), (3)reduce our ability to offer truly unique programs (split NOVA in half?).

The whole idea just strikes me as a way to allow some Seattle residents to stop dealing with people who aren't like them. If admin is top heavy then reduce it. Splitting the district won't do that (Two supes, two CFOs, two enrollment heads....Two BOARDS? We can barely find seven reasonable people to volunteer for that, where would we find fourteen?).

Pittsburgh has about 27,000 kids. My relatives live there and they think all of the small (urban/suburban) districts are a great reason for charters since the districts duplicate so much effort and waste so much money and become provincial little fiefdoms.)

Anonymous said...

Seattle Citizen -

Are you being purposely naive? I suggested north and south as that seems to be the contentious split. I've never heard of east v. west issues - have you? (Though West Seattle is an outlier). Clearly a large part is socio-economic. I don't know how to make it fair. That's what I thought we were discussing, in this forum. It's a purely hypothetical issue, as it could never happen politically, but I was trying to be part of the discussion. Right now, I think we can't solve any issues whether it be north overcrowding or south acheivement gap, because each has to be treated the "same" whether that makes sense or not. (Remember when we had to close schools up north because it was only fair if we were closing schools in the south, regardless of whether this made sense?) Seems to have resulted in paralysis.

-rare commenter

seattle citizen said...

rare commenter, I'm not being naïve. I have been aware for years, decades of the perception that somehow the north half is...different than the south half. That is the idea I was trying to counter when I suggested that IF a split were to happen (and I'm with Maureen, it's a ridiculous idea, and I agree with you that it's politically infeasible) then why not make two districts that each had diversity?

Split them north-south because there has been perceived contention between the north and the south? What are we, the Union and the CSA?

I asked why you suggested N/S because that seems to be the fall-back for many, if not most people, and it's a misconception that the district is that different north and south. Yes, yes, yes, there are economic differences, but hey, there are economic differences between Sand Point and Lake City, between Seward Park and Rainier Avenue...

There is no rationale for a north/south split that makes sense, and a north/south split perpetuates a schism that need not exist, that is amplified for some reason...and I'm curious as to what that reason is.

Historical, perhaps, a legacy of red-lining and covenants? The fall-out from economic patterns and perceptions of class?


There's not need to deepen divisiveness by splitting north/south (or by splitting at all.)

Anonymous said...

Rare commentator, W. Seattle is not an outlier. I hope you understand island mentality. Sticking with sad, old stereotypes or building new walls before the zombie apocalypse hits isn't going to bring about an educational renaissance. Even the world's richest man is finding that out.


Anonymous said...

Oh sorry. It should be to rare commenter, not commentator. -fie!

Anonymous said...

I'm in the southend of West Seattle and my gut reaction is that I would be in favor of a scenario that created a West Seattle School District. West Seattle is not necessarily an outlier, but geographically, economically, racially, ethnically, and politically, I think we could pull it off.

seattle citizen said...

In an island mentality, and a north/south split, I wonder which side would be considered the zombies against which a wall must be built?

Eric B said...

Really, you need the walls built before the zombies start shambling around. It's a heck of a job to build walls while maintaining a perimeter. :)

But seriously, I should say that I don't think that we should split the District. I'm just thinking of the logistics if we did.

Anonymous said...


I am not going to name names, it was a heated moment and I expect and certainly hope that the individual regretted the remark later...but it's an example of how pervasive and damaging the "bickering" is to everyone making progress together. The right District personnel know about this
situation and I believe that they are addressing it.

Fie! - Looking at the District capacity numbers, what I see is that South end schools are not challenged by the same widespread capacity issues as what the North end is facing - that's not to say that there are not individual schools with those issues. The South end focus areas I hear about are not capacity-oriented, but I'm not close to it. Would love to understand the needs in the South end better. Is there more you can share?

~ In Favor of 2-3 Districts

seattle citizen said...

Favor 2/3 (we try to keep our "names" two words or less, for the sake of convenience!).
You wrote:
"Would love to understand the needs in the South end better..."

My view is that the needs of individual students everywhere are very diverse. It's not a question of which part of how town has which needs, but rather how do we meet the needs of students in every part of town?

This is what I find dangerous about the "reform" movement, and by extension a discussion about dividing a district due to some perception of differing needs in the different parts of town.
"Reform" tells us whole schools "fail," therefore abrogating the need to look at each kid (and educator) in that school. Of COURSE there are successful students in every school: Tearing out the curriculum, instituting radical change for EVERY student there, is damaging to the students that are doing well and treats whole populations as if they are "failing" when they are not.

Similarly, suggesting that one part of the city's schools have different needs than others paints with too broad a brush. Each school, in every part of the city, has its own varied group of students.

Supposing we were to divide the district into north/south with the intention of somehow providing different pedagogy and curriculum for each half. How would they look different? Would those changes effect every school? What about schools in each half that wouldn't benefit from said pedagogical shift?

I'm much more in favor of looking at each student, then each school, all around the district, and using the district's resources effectively all around the district. Halving the populations due to some perceived difference in the needs north and south is a dangerous precedent and would certainly lead to an elitist situation where, we know, the wealthier north end would invariably get a richer curriculum and the more impoverished south end would get uniforms, regimentation, and test prep for all.

Now, what needs exist city-wide? The list is endless, and as each student is different, requires careful, individualized attention rather than broad brushes.

Anonymous said...

Anyone whose new, smaller district doesn't include the downtown core, whose children attend an option school outside their region, or whose children are outliers in their region would be worse off if we split up the district.


Anonymous said...

Ha, ha you are so right about walls and zombies. And I will add R. Frost's mix to that:
"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense."

As to capacity, I'm looking at the same SPS reports and see plan for portables in Aki, Mercer, Ecktein, Denny, Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Whitman service areas. The enrollment projection for k-5 shows gains in many of the same service areas. The 2 most talked about service areas on this blog are on the list and SPS are paying particular attention to (good, right?).

For those seeking answers, I'm with SC. Ask yourself, why start with the broad brush in the first place? That'll get you closer to the answers you seek and I suspect you won't even have to cross the Ship Canal either.

Maureen said...

Now I want to see a Pop Poll on whether Western Washington (and Oregon?) should form their own state separate from the Eastern parts of the state(s). We could scoop in Northern California too: Hooray for Cascadia! That makes a whole lot more sense to me than slicing SPS in half.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Maureen, I agree. We take the West Coast (but just northern California) and what a kick-ass region we would have.

Eric B said...

For years, I've thought about running an initiative from an Eastern Washington address to advocate for splitting the state in two. On the East side, I'd campaign on the basis of getting Olympia off their backs. On the West, ditching the ungrateful freeloaders who take the money then complain about spending.

Maureen said...

Eric, I'd be with you on that! (Though I would feel bad for Walla Walla!)

Jan said...

This all sounds to me sort of like the old Stanford "school based management" theme -- only in somewhat bigger clumps. It seems to me it is born of the frustration of a non-responsive downtown administration, and the thought that school (or closer to each school)-based management would be nimbler, more responsive, more knowledgable, etc. \

On the other side are possible duplications in costs, the possibility for poor management from too few really good managers at each split-up district level, etc. Here is a thought. What if we split into 3 districts -- but only sort of. We would maintain:
(1) unified levies -- so that money raised would be raised for all three districts, and the three boards would have some sort of "council" to figure out the splits; and
(2) the possibility of pooling some administrative tasks -- but only if each individual district wanted to. So -- if you LIKE the idea of sharing a general counsel with one or both of the other districts -- great. If you don't, you don't join with the others to buy that service. Same with HR, curriculum planners, etc. You could put together joint purchasing co-ops so the Districts could combine their buying power (but each would decide what they were buying -- in terms of books, etc.) Having all three operating in Seattle would also give citizens in ONE part of town the ability to see what the others are doing well, or poorly, perhaps more easily than we can see what goes on in Tacoma, Kirkland, or Bellevue.

In my opinion, the biggest reason NOT to do this is that we have so much other stuff to do to teach the kids that are heading to school in 1 month. I hate to go off on another management-focused quest, when we should really be focusing on better math, better reading instruction, better plans for keeping kids in schools, and figuring out how to hold our breath and suck it all in for a few years in the north end, until new schools come on line.